This may be the best novella period. It is shockingly modern, and appropriate to our times, as if written yesterday instead of 140+ years ago.
We just left – if you believe media reports – one of the deadliest years in human history, yet death itself has never been further from our eyes. At the same time, the materialism and petty worldly behavior so satirically on display in the novella has become norm, the corruption of the judicial system (in which the protagonist worked) now second nature. It is as if the 20th century, the most sanguine and destructive in human history (thanks to Marxism), had never happened.
Written towards the end of his writing career, at the end of a decade-long spiritual crisis brought on in part by his growing fame, Tolstoy brings to life a hapless judge and bureaucrat named Ivan Ilyich, whose conventional St. Petersburg life only achieves real meaning, belatedly, in his death.
The story opens, interestingly, with the relating of Ivan’s wake. His former judicial colleagues, the two closest to him, attend and can only think of potential career opportunities opened and that evening’s card game missed. True to human nature, their thinking is mostly only inward:
“Well, isn’t that something – but he’s dead and I’m not,” was what each of them thought or felt. [p.33]
Religious hypocrisy is the order of the day. At the wake his widow wonders if his pension might be increased. In the bodily presence of death, his closest work colleague, Pyotr Ivanovich gets ruffled:
He began to feel somewhat uncomfortable and so he crossed himself hurriedly (all too hurriedly he felt, from the standpoint of propriety), turned, and headed for the door. [p.35]
Just as one begins to feel compassion for the demise of the poor, friendless Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy pulls back to the innocent small accident that heralds our hero’s demise, followed by its denial, then more and more denial. Sadly, onrushing death will not be reckoned with until (it is nearly) too late.
Fortunately, among this cast of self-oriented and self-esteemed characters stands out one who is not: Gerasim, the lowly “pantry boy” of the house. As he responds to the departing Pyotr Ivanovich, fleeing the wake in time for his weekly card game, “We all have to die someday.” [p.41]
Ivan Ilyich, mind you, started out reasonably well. “As a law student he had become exactly what he was to remain for the rest of his life: capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable man…” [p.44] (Until the end, that is.)
But the world teaches its worldly ways, such that even his affairs “had such a heightened air of respectability that nothing bad could be said about it.” [p.45] Is this not, more or less, the same impenetrability and impunity of our bureaucratic, governing class today?
If he started out cheerful, even good-natured, the unwelcome and mysterious illness which eventually kills him soon drains him of that, “for he felt that his rage was killing him but he could do nothing to control it.” [p.68]
The source of his rage, ipso facto, is his lack of control. He realizes that every doctor and specialist, as a class, is as venial and self-absorbed as his fellow judges; every promise of hope and mild improvement is illusory and retrograde. Slowly his denial is broken:
“Why deceive myself? Isn’t it clear to everyone but me that I’m dying, that it’s only a question weeks, days – perhaps minutes? Before there was light, now there is darkness. Before I was here, now I am going there. Where?” He broke out in a cold sweat, his breathing died down. All he could hear was the beating of his heart. [p.76]
Worse than raging at life, he develops a hatred for all those around him whom he believes are deceiving him – including his wife.
As she was kissing him, he hated her with every inch of his being, and he had to restrain himself from pushing her away. [p.78]
Enter Gerasim, who selflessly takes on the chores of cleaning out the chamber pot, doesn’t complain, and even gladly accedes repeatedly to his master’s request to raise his feet and hold them resting on his shoulders – in the novella’s most striking image – to lessen the pain. From this and Gerasim’s lack of dissembling, he concludes: “Gerasim was the only one who understood and pitied him. And for that reason Ivan Ilyich felt comfortable only with Gerasim.” [p.87]
Yet the insights, and the respites, are temporary. His condition only worsens, leading to the saving, inevitable spiritual crisis:
He cried about his helplessness, about his terrible loneliness, about the cruelty of people, about the cruelty of God, about the absence of God:
“Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me to this? Why dost Thou torture me so? For what?”
He did not expect an answer, and he cried because there was no answer and there could be none. [p.100]
His laments are Job-like – without the faith – but God eventually does have an answer or two. The self-sacrificing and Christ-like figure of Gerasim is one. When his wife insists on bringing in the priest to fulfill the Russian-Orthodox rituals, he relents and “As he took the sacrament, there were tears in his eyes.” [p.109] When his wife asks “You really do feel better, don’t you?,” the religious hypocrisy is too much, triggering “three days of incessant screaming, screaming so terribly that even two rooms away one could not hear it without trembling.” [p.110-111]
The last answer comes at the end of the three-day long ordeal of repentance:
Just then his son crept quietly into the room and went up to his bed. The dying man was still screaming desperately and flailing his arms. One hand fell on the boy’s head. The boy grasped it, pressed it to his lips, and began to cry. At that very moment Ivan Ilyich fell through and saw the light, and it was revealed to him that his life had not been what it should have but that he could still rectify the situation. [p.112]
The epiphany is clearly spiritual, yet brings on a glimpse of relief and joy.
“And the pain,” he asked himself. “Where has it gone? Now, then, pain, where are you?” [p.113]
This is an echo of the bible’s “O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55), appropriately sung at every year end in Handel’s majestic Messiah.
More topical yet, in an article last year titled “Death and the Virus: A meditation for the plague,” Joseph Epstein claims that “In literature, Tolstoy did death best” and cites this novella.
Which makes me wonder: for how many will the most recent coronavirus be the means that breaks humanity’s denial and leads the so many who need it to the light?
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Bantam Classic edition, New York re-issued May 2004
The Wolf Book Club, based in Miami Beach, FL, discusses the book via videoconference: